BJP and allies will likely win Nagaland—but not because of Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being presented with Naga traditional attires by Nagaland’s chief minister Neiphiu Rio (left, standing) during a public rally ahead of the Nagaland Assembly election, on 24 February 2023. Three states in the Northeast—Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura—go to polls on 27 February. Caisii Mao/NurPhoto/Getty Images
26 February, 2023

The “festival of democracy” is being observed these days in three states in northeast India—Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura. Indian elections have a character that is reminiscent of a mud-wrestling tournament in a mela. It is one dangal in which all communities and sections of society participate. This was not always the case in Nagaland. Referring to the first general elections in independent India, held in 1952, the former Nagaland chief minister Hokishe Sema wrote in his book Emergence of Nagaland, “To keep the record straight it must be mentioned that not a single vote was cast.” The leading Naga separatist organisation of the time, the Naga National Council, had called for a boycott, and the impact of this call was total.

This time around, things are rather different. Not only is there a notable absence of boycott calls, which were otherwise a constant feature up to the late 1990s, there is also a rush among aspiring candidates for tickets to contest from the Bharatiya Janata Party. This is remarkable for a state where, as per the last census, almost eighty-eight percent of the population is Christian, and where a popular slogan used by many sections, including separatists, for decades was “Nagaland for Christ.”

So how has the party of the Hindu Rashtra become acceptable across the hills of Northeast India, where separatist insurgencies raged for so many decades? It may be tempting to credit prime minister Narendra Modi for this shift, but that would be an oversimplification of the region’s history since Independence.

Unlike nowadays, when the term “anti-national” is flung about merrily by the prime minister’s supporters, the standards to qualify as anti-national in Nagaland, and much of the Northeast, were considerably higher. In 1954, an armed insurgency began in the Naga Hills with the aim of creating an independent Naga country. “Anti-nationals” here were people who literally waged war against India. In 2015, Modi famously shook hands and signed a “Framework Agreement” with the leaders of the most powerful Naga insurgent group of recent times, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Isak-Muivah faction. Seven years have elapsed since, but the frame remains empty—there is no final agreement yet.

The emptiness of the framework, however, did not get in the way of the BJP’s sudden rise to prominence in Nagaland. In the 2018 assembly elections, the party had by far its best-ever performance in the state, bagging 12 out of the 20 seats it contested. Its ally, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, or NDPP, led by Neiphiu Rio, who subsequently became chief minister, won 18 of the 40 seats on which it fielded candidates. There are 60 seats in the assembly. The Naga People’s Front, which won 26 seats to emerge as the single largest party, was unable to form the government. It remained the principal opposition party until August 2021 when its MLAs, plus independents, decided—in a remarkable feat of flexible politics—to join hands with the BJP and NDPP to create an opposition-mukt Nagaland assembly. The Congress, which for decades was the ruling party in Nagaland, had won zero seats and thus remained outside this grand alliance.

This time around, the same seat-sharing formula is being applied with a tweak or two. Rio’s NDPP is once again contesting 40 seats, and the BJP 20. The NPF, meanwhile, has shrunk dramatically. It seemingly cannot even find candidates for all the seats it won last time, and will only be contesting 22 of the 60 seats. The Congress is a pale shadow of its former self and is unable to contest even half the 60 seats. It has announced candidates for around twenty-five seats so far.

The remainder of the opposition space is being taken up by unlikely parties such as the Lok Janshakti Party led by Chirag Paswan, the Republican Party of India headed by union minister Ramdas Athawale, the Janata Dal (United) of the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party and the National People’s Party led by the Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma. The LJP is putting up candidates on 19 seats—none of which, interestingly, are seats that the BJP is contesting. Suspicions that the LJP in Nagaland is really the BJP’s B-team are heightened by the fact that most of the serious contenders from the party are those who failed to secure tickets from the BJP or NDPP, and might otherwise have gone over to some less friendly party or contested as independents. The RPI, of course, is an ally of the BJP, as is the NPP, although there is an increasingly bitter rivalry between the NPP and BJP in Northeast India.

What this implies, at the first and most obvious level of analysis, is that the NDPP-BJP combination is highly likely to retain power, with or without other allies. But the more interesting question is, how on earth is this happening in places like Nagaland?

Acolytes of Modi would undoubtedly like to ascribe the turn towards “acche din” in the Northeast to his greatness. To give credit where due, he has indeed taken a lot of interest in the region, but the Indian government’s efforts to bring it into the so-called mainstream actually began long before he took office.

The hardest parts of the task were done by Modi’s predecessors. The first major steps in this direction were taken during the tenure of the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who carved Nagaland out of Assam to accommodate moderate sections of the Nagas within the country’s constitutional politics. Although he is now cast as a liberal snowflake, he was also the prime minister who brought in the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act first as an ordinance and then as a law in 1958, and sent the Indian Army into the Naga Hills to counter the insurgency seeking freedom from India. Prime minister Indira Gandhi expanded on this after the 1971 Bangladesh War, when she redrew the map of the entire broader region, and created the new states of Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura, and the union territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, which later became states. She also held peace talks and concluded accords with Naga separatists.

The process continued under her successors from various parties across the political spectrum. An important inflexion point came in June 1995 when the prime minister PV Narasimha Rao secretly met the leaders of the NSCN(I-M), Isaac Swu and Thingaleng Muivah, in Paris. This was followed by a February 1997 meeting between the prime minister HD Deve Gowda and the NSCN leaders in Zurich, which paved the way for a ceasefire agreement that was signed between the group and the Indian government during the tenure of his successor, IK Gujral, in August that year. The ceasefire has held until now, even as the Northeast has changed.

A change of government in Bangladesh in 2009 robbed northeastern militants of bases—this was the last nail in the coffin of Northeast militancy, but they had already lost the battle for minds and hearts by then. They were beaten by the transformation that started in 1991 with the economic liberalisation of India and the Gulf War in Iraq. A new consumer culture arrived in the country, and in people’s homes and minds, through the wonder of cable television that came in with the first televised war in the world. For those who had grown up watching Doordarshan, cable TV was all-consuming. A hunger for branded goods proliferated. Coca Cola returned to the country in 1993. McDonalds followed three years later. Northeast India was late to the party, which only made people more eager and curious. We wanted to know what wonders lay inside McDonald’s stores and Coca Cola bottles, and what pizza tasted like. Youngsters wanted Nike and Reebok sneakers. People wanted all the luxuries that money could buy. What the AFSPA and decades of hard power had failed to achieve was accomplished in just a few years by the seductive charms of consumer culture, which replaced the thrill of revolution with the coolness of flaunting branded goods.

The new generation that emerged in this ambience was more interested in self-promotion than in self-sacrifice. The leaky coffers of the government of India made their choice easier. Corruption thrived openly, as everyone from clerks to current and former militants to ministers dived into bribery and loot with gusto. The Public Works Department was one place where fortunes were made, but lesser millionaires emerged even from the so-called less lucrative departments. Offices became offices of profit and their auction became commonplace. Politics became an industry and politicians became businessmen. The common people figured that no leader was going to do anything for them anyway, so they might as well take gifts and cash in hand before the elections, and a feast or three. It was better than getting nothing both before the polls and after, especially considering that any MLA they voted in might sell out to the highest bidder later.

The coming “festival of democracy” in the region will thus be observed with all the appropriate rituals. Like most rituals, it will be high on ceremony and low on substance. Who forms the government will ultimately be determined by who has the most money, the most muscle power and maximum control of the levers of state authority—and everyone knows who that is.